Haunting Bombay, by Shilpa Agarwal

For the first time in ages, I've read a novel for grown-ups-- Haunting Bombay, by Shilpa Agarwal (2009, Soho Press, adult fiction).

In an ex-colonial bungalow in Bombay, in the 1960s, live the Mittal family (dysfunctional), their servants (with their own pasts, stories their employees know nothing of), and the family ghost. It is a little baby ghost, the beloved daughter of the family, who died 13 years ago. And in the family there is another girl, nicknamed Pinky, also born thirteen years ago. She was taken in by her grandmother, the family matriarch, when her mother died...which her aunt, caught in bitter morning for her own child, found unforgivable.

One night, Pinky, in an act of rare defiance, unbolts the door of a bathroom that her aunt has ordered locked every night. The opening of the door frees the angry ghost of the baby, and soon family and servants alike are caught up in the consequences of the child's death. Dark secrets from the past shatter the Mittal household's veneer of perfect life, and Pinky's own life is in danger...

With one exception, every character, and there are many of them, has both a back-story and a connection to what happened thirteen years ago that has affected their lives in the present. The narrative swirls between their various points of view, gradually adding piece after piece to the puzzle, gradually making clear what happened and why it tore the family apart. The one character who stands apart from the others is Pinky--although she was the catalyst, and plays a vital role in restoring peace, she wasn't there when the baby died, and so she alone is outside the tangled web of the past. And perhaps because she has no secrets for the author to revel to the reader as the book progressed (it almost felt as though the author wasn't as interested in her as she was in the other characters) she never quite became a fully realized person in my mind. Almost...but not quite.

This disappointed me, because I was expecting Pinky to be the Central Character, the way she would have been if this had been a Young Adult book, and I was furthermore vaguely expecting this to be a book about a teenaged girl who meets a ghost and somehow sets it to rest while growing up/realizing who she wants to be/insert YA trope of your choice here. What I got instead was a family saga of great denseness. It was a good read -- engrossing and vivid, with scary ghosty bits -- but definitely a book for adults (I find it rather interesting that although I can read a 350 page YA book in a few hours, it took me three times as long to read 350 pages of fiction for adults).

Now I am wondering, though, why it is called "Haunting Bombay," and I am imagining writing about this for a college essay, exploring the ways in which this cast of characters is a metaphor for post-colonial Bombay, haunted by many, many ghosts of various kinds, not all of whom are dead...


  1. Wonderful review. I've never heard of this, as I don't get around to Adult fiction often, but this definitely interests me. I love the cover too. Thanks for bringing this to my attention!

  2. I agree, great review! I think I'd probably be dissapointed to by the lack of focus on Pinky, especially since I hate it when I can almost relate to a character - but not quite. Sounds a little too spooky for me, perhaps, but I'll keep it in mind, thanks! :)

  3. I remember you mentioned this when it was on FBC. I never read it but sadly I think I'd be disappointed in it.

  4. I have the same issue: I can sit and read a 350 page YA book in no time, but I have to slog through the adult stuff. Glad I'm not the only one. And sorry it didn't live up to your expectations.

  5. Glad I'm not the only one who doesn't read adult books anymore. It's kind of hard when I'm with most adults who read. I'm glad to have my blog friends.


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